In the tack room they sat two abreast, copies of Horse and Hound and the Racing Post dog-eared on the table amongst a smattering of makeshift ashtrays and dirty mugs. ‘Keep Calm, I’m The Boss’, proclaimed one. ‘Gainsborough Chase 2011’ was just visible on another. The Sun lay atop the detritus, open to Mystic Meg and her astrological forecast. The stable lads and lasses read the horoscopes every day; this morning, despite his usual protestations, Tony had held his hands up in defeat, grinning ruefully as they read his predictions out to him. Now the newspaper lay discarded as they listened, tense and catlike, to the racing broadcast.
At the other end of the broadcast, in the owners’ box, Tony watched and waited. Externally he was perfectly calm, a counterpoint to the horse’s owners, who brayed and hooted a frantic orchestra to the very-important-persons alongside. Internally, he recalled the horse’s career trajectory thus far as though it was playing on a loop; a short, sharp CCTV reel with an unreliable narrator superimposed over the top.
-“Tony Prior has trained the horse from…”
-Taurus’ day is on the up and
- “…won 5/1 at Kempton…”
-planets are aligned for
-“…bold over hurdles but slow over the final three…”
-on the same astral plane
-“Not the bookies’ choice but a solid…”
Twirling a half-spent Winsor Blue between gloved fingers, Ben tried to remember riding before the fear had taken over. He could only draw the sensation back in bursts; exploding into the periphery of his conscious and then fading away before the iron grip of nostalgia could reel them in. His brain skipped over the merest of sensations; the acrid smell of treated grass gallops, the shock of cold silks, the thrusting and roiling that may have been his first race or may have been his first fuck, but somehow, over the years, the sensations had intertwined and become indistinguishable. He wanted desperately, now, to feel the body of a horse beneath him and forget analytical thought, to revert to that animal state of purely physical impulse in which man and horse and ground and jump and sky are all one sinuous being, but he had lost that. Stubbing out the fag-end, he mounted up, with demons in his head and tension in his knees.
The owners were a married couple, just past the tipping points of both middle-age and upper-middle-class; the wife frequented the finest milliners in the home counties and referred to herself as ‘mummy’ in the context of her horse. Her husband, a burly man with a penchant for hunting, collected old envelopes and got terribly insecure in any social setting that included people he feared were better-educated than he. They slept in separate bedrooms.
“Oh, darling, there he is, loooook!” cried the wife, wobbling on tip-toes to squint out onto the course. “Number Eight, Retrograde, 4 to 1, owned by Mr and Mrs Charles Bothwick, trained by Tony Prior, Ben Harding up – oh, darling, LOOK!” She gave her husband’s sleeve a frantic tug.
“Yes, yes, darling, yes,” Mr Bothwick replied, his thick moustache sweating and the race card clenched in a hammy fist as the horses approached the start. He convulsed visibly as the starter raised the flag. Tony took a deep breath. Ben pressed his knuckles hard against muscled crest. Venus, said Mystic Meg, is in the psychic sector of your chart.
To the horse’s owners, a win would be bragging rights; something to talk about over bridge and the latest Wine Society haul, an affirmation of social status. To Tony, it was something a bit headier; he had bred the horse himself, turned it away, watched it transform from spun wool and spindly legs to sinew and strength and all the watchwords of the Thoroughbred horse’s mythology. He had held the horse’s head the first time one of the stable lads – younger, springier, with a much higher tolerance for hard stable floors and a much higher capacity for bouncing – had swung a leg over. A win would be positive press for the whole operation, something to discuss and consider over endless cups of tea in the office, an affirmation of his ethos as a trainer and, perhaps, another chip away from the imposter syndrome that had dogged him, inexplicably, throughout his career. A win would mean piano lessons for his eight-year-old daughter, Lily, a decidedly unhorsey but nonetheless feisty girl with a stubborn streak to match her father’s and a ferocious wit to match her mother’s. A win would mean bills paid. A win would mean that he really did belong here in the upper echelons of the industry.
But win or lose, Tony knew, the day would end and the next would begin and horses would need feeding and mucking out and exercising and as long as he could maintain some semblance of order then the whole thing would propel itself onward, sure as the tides. The seasons and the sorrows, the trials and the triumphs , the major and minor players with their own private universes orbited the microcosm of the stableyards as the horses orbited the tracks and the stable lads and lasses orbited The Sun. It would be okay, really, he knew. But wouldn’t a win be the shooting star in the night sky?
“Coming up to the second last now and they’re holding fast – only three down and out of what really does look to be a truly top-class field here today! It’s anyone’s race now, very close indeed!”
Tony closed his eyes, recalled the horse’s first tentative steps, and smiled. Ben felt the wind whipping his face, the reins biting his fingers, but for the first time in a year, forgot to think. Fifty miles away, Lily Prior learned how to play a C minor.
Mercury entered retrograde; Retrograde entered the home stretch.